By Golly, It’s the Deity Again

On Language: Spelling 'G-d,’

By Philologos

Published June 30, 2010, issue of July 09, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Jonah G. Sinowitz writes:

“Since I was a young child, I’ve written the word G-d with a hyphen. I still think in terms of G-d, even though everyone around me uses the word Hashem. On the other hand, I have no problem writing ‘god’ with a small ‘g.’ Today, for example, in referring to what folks in the technology field might call a ‘guru,’ I spoke of someone as ‘a god in the field of computer science.’ I’m curious whether other languages have the same issue.”

I’ve written before in this column about the spelling “G-d,’ which is restricted to Orthodox Jews. It’s one that quite literally sets my teeth on edge, since the only sound I can imagine for it is the sound I might make if I suddenly were to swallow a goldfish — and what good is a word, even a written one, if it sounds like a goldfish in the gullet?

I understand, of course, the logic behind “G-d.” It goes back both to the biblical commandment against taking God’s name in vain and to the shem ha-meforash or Tetragrammaton (from Greek tetra, four, and gramma, a letter of the alphabet), the Hebrew letters yod-heh-vav-heh that compose this name in the Bible. By the end of the Second Temple period, they were considered so sacred that Jewish law permitted their utterance only once a year, by the high priest in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, and while they continued to be copied by scribes in Torah scrolls, they were now read as adonai, “Lord” or “Master.”

Subsequently, in early rabbinic times, adonai, too, began to be considered too holy for anything but liturgical use. In all ordinary situations, it was replaced by various euphemisms, the two most common being ha-kadosh barukh hu, “the Holy One Blessed Be He,” and ha-shem, “The Name” — which, as Mr. Sinowitz observes, is how many Orthodox Jews refer to God to this day. The same thing happened with the other main biblical word for God, elohim, while when the Bible or prayer book was read or quoted from in nonliturgical situations such as study, adonai and elohim were de-sacralized by being changed, respectively, to adoshem and elokim.

Writing “God” as “G-d,” a development that has taken place in the past half-century of American Jewish life, can thus, I suppose, be defended as a further extension of an old trend into English. Yet, English itself has traditionally resorted to dashes only to indicate unprintable vulgarisms like “f—k” or “sh—t,” so that, ironically, “G-d” looks more like an obscene word than a sacred one. (This is another reason I find it foolish.) The traditional method by which English has avoided profaning the name of God has been quite different and has involved — like adoshem for adonai, or elokim for elohim — mimetic euphemisms, like “Gosh” or “Golly.”

Indeed, English has a large number of such euphemisms, all originally used for oaths, such as “Gosh darn” for “God damn,” “By golly” and “By jingo” for “By God,” “For goodness’ sake” for “For God’s sake” and so on. Expressions of this sort go back to the Middle Ages. Probably the best known of the medieval ones, though rarely heard anymore, is “Zounds,” a contraction of “s’ wounds,” a substitute for “[by] God’s wounds!” — a way of swearing by the crucified Jesus. English also has many substitutes for the name of Jesus itself, such as “Gee whiz,” “Gee whillikers” and “Jeepers,” in addition to such combinations as “Jiminy Crickets” for “Jesus Christ,” and “For crying out loud” for “For Christ’s sake.”

Unlike Hebrew, however, English did not develop such words because “God” was considered too sacred to utter; it did so solely in deference to “Thy shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” which was interpreted as referring to trivial or unnecessary oaths. Almost nowhere in the English language can one find a sentence like “I pray to Gosh when I’m worried” or “I’ve always had a strong belief in Golly,” situations in which Jewishly observant speakers of Hebrew and Yiddish (and increasingly, as Mr. Sinowitz points out, of English) will use “Hashem” or one of its equivalents. (The only exception to this rule that I can think of is a sentence like “Goodness knows that I meant well,” in which “Goodness” functions as a “God” substitute, too.) Other European languages have similar “minced oaths,” as they are called, although none, to the best of my knowledge, as extensively as English. Thus, for instance, we have the French sacre bleu (literally, “holy blue”), which is a circumlocution for sang de dieu (“God’s blood”), and the Italian porco zio, translatable as “goddamn it,”” in which zio, “uncle,” replaces dio.

The nice thing about such euphemisms is that, unlike “G-d,” you can pronounce them. Perhaps Jews made a mistake when, 50 or 60 years ago, they did not start writing “The Torah is Gosh’s revelation to man” or “We are Golly’s chosen people.” It’s too late for that now, but between “G-d” and Hashem, I definitely prefer the latter. At least it has some vowels.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.